The First 30 Seconds

Alaska Airlines Article Featuring Patricia Fripp

Innovative Openings Launch Memorable Meetings…

Patricia Fripp was coaching a CEO from a major corporation who had eight minutes to outline a money-saving program to his employees. Instead of leading off with money talk, she suggested he walk on stage and say, “We are here to talk about heroes,”

then pause…

and continue pausing…

for a long…

long…

time.

The effect was not lost on the audience. Slowly, the titters began, followed by an outburst of laughter. But the tactic sent the message. Where are the heroes? Continuing, the speaker pointed out: “They may be sitting behind you, they may be sitting in front of you. Or they may be you.”

Every single person in the audience sat forward. “They knew he was talking directly to them,” recalls Fripp. She is the author of Get What You Want!, Make It! So You Don’t Have to Fake It and Coauthor of Speaking Secrets of the Masters with Ken Blanchard. “The audience was enthralled. What he proved was that this was not going to be another dull company speech.”

Whether it’s words, three-dimensional graphics, cavorting across a stage–even taking off to an exotic location: today’s presenters and meeting planners use a variety of techniques to captivate an audience.

“If you don’t engage them in the first few minutes, it will be difficult.” Fripp says.

“The rule of thumb is, if you don’t have them in the first 30 seconds, you never will. If you’re warming up, it’s too late,” says Rick Barrera, one of the country’s top business motivators.

“Because the stakes of meetings can be so perilously high, more and more companies are calling on the professionals to help make a presentation riveting…”

That first 30 seconds has ripple effects–what happens during that time can make or break a meeting. Because the stakes of meetings can be so perilously high, more and more companies are calling on the professionals to help make a presentation riveting. Members of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). The world’s largest society of executive planners book some $56 billion in conventions and get-togethers each year. The 16,300 members of Meeting Planners International (MPI) coordinate 800,000 meetings annually. Some meetings with several thousand attendees may rely on 20 or more speakers, dozens of audio-visual presentations and any combination of lecture, written handouts, group discussion or use the desktop computers and multimedia projectors to captivate their listeners.

This reminds me of a story…

The opening is still the most important part of any presentation. “It can be a dramatic statement, such as The Internet is going to affect your business, even if it’s going to put you out of business,” Fripp says. She used that at one recent gathering. The message: if you don’t change, you’ll fight a war you can’t win. She then softened the blow, she says, by telling her audience not to worry too much and presenting them with new strategies.

Stories are also an effective way to grab and hold an audience. “When you think of any compelling speaker,” says Barrera, “you think of someone who can really tell a story to engage an audience and relate that to solid content. Stories make the content interesting.”

Humor is fine, as long as it’s appropriate and relates to the subject or the audience. “You can tell a long joke if the story has a big payoff,” says Barrera.

Another effective opener is role-play. Fripp coaches her clients to use her “Hollywood model” of character, dialogue and dramatic lesson. In framing their anecdotes, she suggests they tell a story by engaging in role-play, then relating it to a specific message. For example, to convey a lesson in honesty, she may cast meeting participants as a father with his two youngsters in front of a movie counter discussing ticket prices. When someone suggests one of the boys can pass for younger and get a discount, the father is asked, “Who will know?” Referring to his son, he replies “He will.”

More than words

Grabbing an audience is only the first step. “What’s harder is keeping their attention,” says Jim Hall, Director of marketing for audiovisual products at Epson America in Long Beach, California. “We are the television generation. We expect to be entertained, and the more professional the presenter, the higher that expectation.” For Hall, the golden rule is to make sure he knows the audience and finds a subject they care about. He uses a variety of techniques when he promotes Epson products to large groups. He maintains eye contact with the audience and makes large, theatrical gestures to make a point. It’s extra important, he says, to change inflection. “If you don’t vary the tone of your voice, even if they are interested in what you’re saying, they’ll go to sleep.”

Fripp suggests presenters take a cue from action movies and “show,” don’t “tell.” Stars such as Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme are in the business of telling a story through movement. “Audiences don’t go to hear what Norris or Van Damme say. They go to see the high-action scenes,” she says.

Fripp tells her clients to imagine they’re in a movie or play. For filmed large gatherings, she suggests playing to the camera with the raise of an eyebrow or a casual glance. In a smaller setting, “Imagine you’re in a theater,” she says. “Your personality takes up the entire place and absorbs your movement. That’s when you can be more dramatic.”

Keep it fresh

“Meetings should have good stories and good visual aids, but you can’t think that’s enough,” says Mel Silberman, professor of adult and organizational development at Temple University and author of 101 Ways to Make Meetings Active. After a presentation, he has participants turn to each other to discuss its meaning.

Fripp’s Tips

For Women:

  • Keep you hair out of your face while you speak. Don’t put your hands in it.

For Men:

  • Take the change out of your pockets, you will jingle.
  • Go to the room ahead of time and be comfortable in the environment.
  • Memorize the first 30 seconds and the last 30 seconds.
  • Work from an outline rather than reading your talk.
  • Clearly know what is your message.
  • Shake hands with the audience, or as many as possible if it is large.
  • You are not nervous of people, just audiences.
  • Be aware of your non-words, ah, ums.
  • Prepare your own introduction.
  • Remember nothing can position you ahead of the crowd like the ability to stand up and speak eloquently, or at least stagger to your feet and say anything at all.

© This article first appeared in Alaska Airlines magazine. | January 2000